Can Indy Manage to Hold on? (AFC South Preview)

The AFC South has been dominated by one team and really one man for the last few years as the Indianapolis Colts and Peyton Manning have won the South consistently. Peyton Manning has been one of the best QBs in the NFL and he has led his team to the AFC South championships repeatedly. Meanwhile the Houston Texans are beginning to show some life after coming into the NFL in the 1997. The Texans have been getting better every year and will be looking to challenge the dominance of the Colts this year. The Jacksonville Jaguars have also been better as they have put together some good seasons as of late. The bottom of the division has been Tennessee as they have not had a good season in a while. It could be the year that the Colts do not repeat as the division champs and the other teams have all made improvements in order to challenge the Colts. This year the Colts will be looking to get over a key injury while the rest of the team circle to finally win the South.

Houston Texans

In 1997 the Houston Texans came back to the NFL for the first time since the Houston Oilers left to become the Tennessee Titans. In 2009 the Texans had their best season in franchise history earning their first winning record since returning. This was their first winning season but they still could not make the playoffs. In 2010 this new found confidence was tested as the Texans regressed to a 6-10 record and ended up 3rd in the AFC South. They did this with a powerful offence but not a very good defence. The season started off well with the Texans winning 4 of their first six games as they looked to be on their way to challenging for the AFC South title. After their week 7 bye week the Texans began to fall apart as they lost their first four games after the break. They only won two of their last ten games as they seemed to run out of steam. This may have been due to the lack of defence in Houston as the offence could not keep up with the opponent after the defence allowed too much. This year the Texans will look to repeat the performance of 2009 and they have some history to back them up. The New Orleans Saints had the same type of team in 2009 when they won the Super Bowl and so the Texans will hope to be the same team in 2011.

The Texans will try to win with their powerful offence but they have made some key moves to make sure they have a defence that can stand up to the opposition. They will try to do this by switching from a 4-3 defence to a 3-4 defence that has been used by some of the best defences in the league. Their first move was during the draft when they took defensive end J.J. Watt from Wisconsin. Watt was a defensive standout in Wisconsin earning 62 tackles and 7 sacks last year. Along with Watt the Texans running defence will also have Brian Cushing and Mario Williams in their linebacking corps. Williams will be the biggest question as he will be switching from a down defensive lineman to a rushing linebacker. The Texans have also added Johnathan Joseph and Danieal Manning to shore up their pass defence. If the defence can step up and learn the new system they may be able to have a defence that can keep them in games. On offence the Texans do not need to change much as they have one of the most explosive offences in the league. Matt Schaub has come into his own with the assistance of the best receiver in the NFL right now Andre Johnson. Johnson has regularly had the most receiving yards in the league in the past years and does not look to be slowing down. The biggest issue for the Texans will be the injury of their running back Arian Foster who ran for over 1,600 yards last year but will miss the first few weeks of the season with a hamstring injury. Without Foster the Texans will move to Derrick Ward and Steve Slaton to pick up the slack. The offence may suffer a little in the running game at the start but it is unlikely that they will still not be the best offence in the NFL this year. The Texans will hope that their defence can do just enough to make the playoffs this year as their offence is already at a playoff level.

Indianapolis Colts

The Indianapolis Colts have been the best team in the AFC South for years and it is really due to their starting QB Peyton Manning. Ever since coming into the league Manning has been the starting QB for the Colts. His first season was not good as he broke a record for the most interceptions by a rookie QB. Since then he has established himself as one of the best QBs in the NFL as people debate whether he or Tom Brady is better. With Manning at the helm it seems like the Colts are always favorites to make it to the playoffs and even have a chance at the Super Bowl. In 2010 the Colts tested this theory as it seemed like every key player went down except Manning. The Colts lost almost every player that gave Manning a passing game including Dallas Clark, Austin Collie, and Anthony Gonzalez. The rest of the team stepped up however and under Manning the Colts remained a strong offence. On defence the Colts were getting a little older and struggled at points but were still good enough to keep the Colts in the game. The Colts finished with a 10-6 record and got first in the AFC South. This gave them a playoff berth where they fell to the New York Jets in the Wild Card Game. The Colts again won the division but did not have the season they wanted as they limped into the playoffs. With an improving division the Colts will try to stay on top with an aging team and one very big injury.

The Colts got some bad news this offseason as Peyton Manning went under the knife to have surgery on his neck. It needed to be done in order for Manning to remain one of the best QBs in the league but the cost was that Manning had a longer recovery period than he wanted. The Colts biggest problem this year will be their depth at QB as Manning looks to miss at least the first week if not more. Even when Manning returns the pattern that he follows is one where without practice he will not be the same. Without practice Manning is truly rusty to start a game and will take a few weeks to get back into his true form. This leaves Curtis Painter and Kerry Collins, who the Colts signed out of retirement, to play QB for the Colts as they try to prove that the team can win with a backup QB. The rest of the offence remains the same with one major change in the line as two rookies, first round pick Anthony Costonzo and Ben Ijalana, will anchor the right side. This could mean more trouble for the QBs as they will need to have their wits about them as the rookies adjust to the NFL game. On defence the Colts were not good last season and they attempted to change this in the offseason. The Colts signed Tommie Harris and Ernie Sims to give some life to the defence. These players have not impressed however as they have not seemed to make a big impact in the preseason. The front four has always been the strength of the Colts defence, more specifically the two defensive ends. Dwight Freeney, who will enter his 10th season, and Robert Mathis, entering his 9th season, are two important veterans but cannot carry a team by themselves. There have not been many more changes on a defence that was ranked 20th last season. The Colts have a number of concerns and this year they may be overtaken by an improving division.

Tennessee Titans

The Tennessee Titans have been an up and down team the last few years and in 2010 this was the case. The Titans were cursed by personnel issues as the management could not agree on much. The 2010 season started off well as the Titans went 5-3 in the first eight weeks. The Titans continued to change QBs as Vince Young and Kerry Collins exchanged the starting role. After the bye week everything changed as in week 11 Vince Young was hurt forcing him out of the game. After the game Young threw his shoulder pads into the stands that angered head coach Jeff Fisher. In the locker room the head coach and Young had it out and ended with Young storming out of the locker room. Fisher announced that Rusty Smith would be the starting QB the next game and that Young would not be playing. This continued as Young sat out the rest of the season and Kerry Collins taking on the starting QB role. The team finished the season with a 6-10 record and ended up in 4th place in the AFC South. When the season was coming to an end for the Titans the belief was that owner Bud Adams would have to make a choice to release Vince Young or fire Jeff Fisher as both did not get along throughout the season. After the season and during the playoffs the Titans announced that head coach Jeff Fisher would not be returning as the head coach after spending 16 years with the team. The solution seemed to be made as the Titans had moved on with a new head coach and began preparing for the 2011 season. Then during the offseason the Titans announced that Vince Young would be released and that Kerry Collins would be retiring. This left them without a QB and with a brand new offence and defence. The Titans have a lot to deal with in 2011 and will have some growing pains as they change everything.

The offseason for the Titans was not a good one as they were told that Kerry Collins would retire and Vince Young would be released. This left them without a QB until they signed former Seattle Seahawks QB Matt Hasselbeck. Hasselbeck will give some stability to the unstable Titans’ QB situation. He will also provide a veteran presence to their #1 draft pick Jake Locker who will sit behind Hasselbeck and learn the offence as the future QB. This will be good for the offence that will establish a brand new offence and defence with the promotion of Mike Munchak from offensive line coach to head coach. Hasselbeck will have time to learn this new offence with one of the best lines in the NFL in front of him. This line will also help their RB as Chris Johnson has ended his hold-out in time for the regular season. Johnson will return as one of the best RBs in the NFL who ran for over 1,300 yards last year and had 12 TDs. Johnson is the key to the Titans offence as he will still be the feature player on a team that will pass to set up the run. On defence the Titans will be looking to second round pick Akeem Ayers, Lb to help improve their defensive play. The Titans defence was ranked 26th overall in 2010 and this will need to improve if the Titans want to challenge for the AFC South title. Their strength on the defence is the passing game as they have two cornerbacks that can play very well. Cotrland Finnegan and Jason McCourty have the ability to be very good but they need to live up to their potential to lead the defence. With the addition of Akeem Ayers and Barrett Rudd, who had 118 tackles last year, the Titans hope they will be able to handle the running game on defence. The changes the Titans will go through may provide some growing pains but the team is built solid enough to overcome these pains. The biggest challenge to the Titans will be that the other teams in the South may have improved more than them and will give them a challenge if they are in the hunt for the division crown.

Jacksonville Jaguars

The Jacksonville Jaguars have been a team that has not been very successful but mainly for the fact that their division has been able to beat them, mainly the Colts. They have not gained a lot of respect as they have rarely had a QB that is considered an elite pivot and, until recently, have not found a lot of respect at the running back position. This fit in with their elite RB as Maurice Jones-Drew believed he was a first round pick but was passed over by every team. As a result of this he wears #32 to remind him that those 32 teams didn’t think he was good enough to play in the NFL. He has proved all of them wrong and brought some attention to the Jags as Jones-Drew has become a feared RB in the NFL. Behind the legs of Maurice Jones-Drew the Jags had a good year in 2010 as they competed with the Indianapolis Colts for the AFC South title. Jacksonville was able to finish with an 8-8 record and ended in 2nd place in the South. They were able to keep up with the Colts for the most of the season but seemed to run out of steam in the final weeks as they lost their last three games in the season including their last game against the Colts that solidified their spot out of the playoffs. The Jags will look to improve on this performance and finally get over the Colts to win the AFC South.

The Jaguars planned for the future in 2011 as they drafted Missouri QB Blaine Gabbert as the backup to David Garrard. This was the plan but the recent injury concerns from Garrard have put Gabbert in the spotlight. Garrard has had issues with his back recently and if it continues the rookie QB will have to take over the offence. The performance of Gabbert has also put him in the spotlight as he has recently played well in preseason moving him closer to the starting spot. In my experience watching the NFL a QB controversy rarely works out well until one of the QBs is named the true #1 starter. Although Garrard is the #1 right now if he slips up or ends up injured for a week the controversy will start and the distractions will persist. Meanwhile the offence will still be carried by Maurice Jones-Drew as he comes back this year and will be the feature player. The receiving corps will need to improve as well as Mike Thomas and Jason Hill will need to improve on their performances last year to give the Jags an explosive offence. On defence the Jaguars made a number of moves in order to increase their run defence in a division that still values the run. The Jags signed DE Matt Roth and linbackers Clint Session and Paul Posluszny as a way to shut down Chris Johnson and Arian Foster. These signings should improve their defence but their biggest concern will be their pass defence that struggled last year. To help improve this, the Jags signed Free Safety Dawan Landry but will hope that Courtney Greene and Derek Cox will be able to improve from last year. Some help will need to come from the new and improved front eight as they will need to get pressure on the QB in order to force mistakes. The Jaguars have made some improvements on the defence but have not made a lot of changes on offence. This might be fine as the Jags did compete for the AFC South last year but the lack of improvement and the fact that there may be a QB controversy may force the Jags to lose traction in 2011.

 

Prediction:

1. Houston Texans (11-5)

2. Indianapolis Colts (10-6)

3. Tennessee Titans (8-8)

4. Jacksonville Jaguars (7-9)

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